While my co-author Harley and I were prepping Outside In for publication back in the spring of 2012, I learned about the strange practice of soliciting “blurbs,” those pithy words of praise on a book’s back cover that tout the messages inside. There’s even a verb associated with this process — as in, “Would you consider blurbing our book?”
One of the people we reached out to with this request was a well-known author who I kind of idolized at the time. I was super excited (and nervous) to hop on the phone with him and to hear his thoughts on this book that I’d spent countless hours working on during the preceding months. And I can still remember the call like it was yesterday.
“I really like your book,” he started, as a cool wave of relief washed over me. Then a pause. “But I can’t blurb it.”
“I find it racist,” he explained.
Woah. Hold up a second. I was seriously confused. And honestly a bit offended.
“Racism, in my mind, is creating a separation or class structure between different sets of people — regardless of who those people are or why the line is being drawn,” he continued. In a nutshell, he found the book’s distinction between customers and employees to be incompatible with his belief system.
This was certainly not the type of racism that Martin Luther King Jr. devoted his life to eradicating. But this author’s comment made me consider that day — and on many days since — if Outside In and the industry’s focus on customer experience had inadvertently relegated employees to some second, lower class.
I think about the December 2019 Verge exposé about hip luggage brand Away, in which 14 employees told stories of being verbally abused, forced to work long hours without overtime pay, and denied requests for time off in order to catch up on an ever-growing backlog of customer emails. With $181 million in funding from 2015 to 2019, the company’s founders focused on growth through customer obsession — even when the cost of the customer experience came at the expense of the mental health and well-being of the people who delivered it.
As reported by Verge, “The cutthroat culture allowed the company to grow at hyperspeed, developing a cult following with celebrities and millennials alike. But it also opened a yawning gap between how Away appears to its customers and what it’s like to actually work there. The result is a brand consumers love, a company culture people fear, and a cadre of former employees who feel burned out and coerced into silence.”
Stories this sensational are thankfully few and far between, but I have seen firsthand — in both the organizations I’ve worked for and the clients I’ve worked with — that many employee struggles go untold. The Away scandal illustrates the very real danger of becoming customer-obsessed to an unhealthy degree. Customer-obsession will only benefit your company and your brand if you are also employee-obsessed. Neglecting or abusing any group of people in order to meet the needs of another group is simply not ok.
And yes, the injustices suffered by Away’s employees may pale in comparison to those suffered by people of varying faiths, colors, or sexual orientations as they seek to be who they want to be, learn what they want to learn, or love who they want to love. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We all need to work deliberately and continually to ensure justice for all people. Let’s make sure that work includes the very people we work alongside of every day.